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The 19 year-old NHL draft sounds good to me…

To be clear, as a hockey fan, I’ve always preferred the so-called 20 year-old draft.  That is, in general, I like the idea of young players performing with their peers in college or junior hockey for as long as possible, so they are really ready for that next step in their careers into the pro ranks. (Bob Nicholson and Hockey Canada are pushing for a change, to the age of 19, and I, for one, would love to see an adjustment made in how and when players are drafted.)

This is not to suggest that there aren’t (or haven’t been, historically) any number of kids who can play at the NHL level at 18.  Crosby is just one a recent example, Duschene in Colorado, Schenn here in Toronto (though I honestly feel he would have been better served playing another year in junior…) etc.

Through history, we all know the legendary names who joined the NHL “early”: Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr and of course Wayne Gretzky are obvious examples of young players who had the size and/or skill and smarts to survive and thrive at the highest level of the game.  Those players not only survived but ultimately thrived, playing with and against players who pushed them to be as good as they could be. (I've included a great old late 1950s picture of Hull, above, scoring a goal at the old Chicago Stadium against Eddie Chadwick and the Maple Leafs.)

I well remember when the “amateur” draft, as I think it was called, was introduced in the late 1960s.  It was the beginning of the end in some ways for the Maple Leafs, who of course lost their  so-called “territorial rights” to all those emerging stars with St. Mike’s juniors and the Marlies.  It was better—and fairer—for all the new expansion teams of course, but not for Toronto.  (For its part, the Montreal franchise adjusted well to the new system, largely because their wise General Manager, Sam Pollock, traded away a number of older players who no longer fit into Montreal’s future plans in return for high draft picks.  The new clubs were so desperate for “name” players from successful teams that they gave away top future picks for players who often did not have much of an impact.  Montreal, on the other hand, benefited from having lots of selections to hit and miss with.  That's how the Habs ended up with Guy Lafleur, despite winning the Stanley Cup just before the 1971 draft.  Toronto, though, did not have the organizational depth to use that kind of strategy...)

What I also remember was that the draft back then was for 20 year-old players only.  That was the end of their time in junior and that’s when they could be drafted.  Full stop.  U.S. college players were barely a consideration back then.  “Red” Berenson was a Canadian who had played in the NCAA and then for the Habs, but players like him were rare.  It was all about Canadian junior players back then, at least in the draft.

Now, when the World Hockey Association jumped on to the scene in the early 1970s, all hell broke loose.  They started grabbing kids as teenagers (e.g. Mark Howe) and the NHL retaliated/responded with an 18-year old draft of their own, as Irecall.  That’s when the Leafs grabbed Jack Valiquette in the first round in about 1974 or so. (Just before that, a player like Denis Potvin in Ottawa, who probably could have played in the NHL a bit earlier, had to play out his time until he was 20 and probably bored playing with younger “kids”.)

I’m trying to remember if the NHL stayed with the 18 year-old draft, but I think they eventually went back to the 20 year-old minimum for a while, after they finally merged with the WHA.  But someone may correct my fuzzy memory on that one.   Leasf fans of the era recall that the Leafs drafted those three kid defensemen, (Benning, Boimustruck and McGill) in 1979 or ‘80 and played them before they were 20.  Later, Mario Lemieux came around (1984-’84?) as an 18 year-old with the Penguins, so I can’t remember what the NHL did, exactly. (If anyone remembers whether the NHL stayed with the 18-year old draft, by all means help me out...)

A quick side-step:  my late father hated the idea of the draft in the late ‘60s, because, as a devout Montreal fan at the time for 50+ years, he loathed the idea of the Canadiens giving up their rights to the best young French players in the province of Quebec.  (If I remember correctly, the last two French-Canadian players who Montreal was able to protect were Rejean Houle and Marc Tardiff in 1969 or thereabouts....)  Dad used to tell me (and I think he was prophetic) that if a kid or their family ever took the NHL to court, that he could win a case to allow himself to sign with any team he wanted after the age of 18 (just like any young person had the freedom and the right to choose where he/she wanted to work).  That hasn’t come to pass, but the 18 year-old draft was here to stay shortly thereafter. (As I write this, I’m trying to remember, wasn’t that precisely the legal road Eric Lindros and his family were heading down, before he was granted a trade from Quebec City to the Flyers?)

In any event, this is my long and winding way of saying:  I’d love to see the NHL (like the NBA) move to a 19 year old draft.

It won’t happen, I realize, because the NHLPA would fight it, though it would be in the best interests of players, and the game, in my view.  I realize there are counter-arguments, but there are reasons why I’d like to see the draft age increased:

It’s crap shoot for scouts to look at 17 year-olds and project what they might be as pros in 5 or 6 years.  It’s so different from the NFL, where you pick someone who is by and large physically and emotionally ready, in their 20s, to become a professional athlete after spending anywhere from two to four years in a college environment and playing against other top athletes.

Education-wise, players could focus, it seems to me, a bit more on school when they are 17-18 rather than worrying about “getting drafted”.  If it couldn’t happen until they were 19, most would have graduated from high school and be on to college or university by then, but at least they could have focused on school as a priority, not the draft.

Also, U.S. collegiate players may be less apt to leave school early and sign pro.

My most important recommendation, and I’m not the first to suggest this, I’m sure, would be that 18 year-olds would only be allowed to be selected in the first round of the NHL draft.  In other words, teams would have to be serious about a player to commit a draft pick to someone that young.  After that only 19 year olds would be eligible.

Right now, too many teams are picking 18 year olds in the 6th round or whatever.  That makes no sense to me, never has.  Kids don’t want to go back into the draft a second time (does anyone ever get drafted higher the second time around—not because they aren’t further along the development curve, but because they are being punished by the “system” for not signing the first time they were drafted…), so they generally sign a contract- because they are happy just to be picked.

This way, kids could improve their draft position by maturing and showing better in that later year—and get better contracts as a result.

I think we’d see teams making way smarter choices, with fewer mistakes being made.  Scouts would have an extra year to see players develop.

Hey, there will always be the young player who can step in as a teenager—the true “exceptions”.  But for too long we have pushed and prodded too many kids who aren’t exceptional, and I think we end up hurting a lot of kids rather than helping them.

I may be alone, but that’s how I feel.


  1. No comment but a slow clap. Exceptional work, Michael.

  2. I'm with you, Kid K - well put, Michael. 18 year olds in the first round, 19+ thereafter. (And, trusting my memory, I think you're correct about the Lindros strategy.)

  3. Excellent article. The only thing I would say is draft 18 year olds in the first ten picks only and then 19 year olds for the remainder of the first and subsequent rounds.

    I'm pretty sure somebody sued for the right to be drafted as an 18 year old. I wanna say Ken Linesman otherwise known as the Rat but I might be wrong.

    One last thing, I just want to say kudos to the commentators here on VLM. The level of discourse is second to none and they always follow an excellent and thought provoking post by Michael. Well done gentleman, well done. Cheers.

  4. I feel as if a 19 year old draft would benefit the CHL, but at considerable cost to the NCAA. Both Chris Peters and I ( feel that many players may decide to forgo playing in the NCAA, and subsequently USHL, to in order to play in the CHL in their draft year. This is due to freshman in the NCAA playing against players 3-4 years older and more mature than them, and due to many freshmen in college needing to earn their stripes for ice time. As such many high prospects could see that a detrimental to their draft stock and choose the path of the CHL, thus forfeiting their NCAA eligibility.

  5. Kid K, Gerund O', Wilbur- thank you to each of you for your comments about the article. It's a discussion up for debate, I realize.

    KidK...thanks for your kind remark. I appreciate it very much. Wilbur, I, like you, appreciate the tone and thought-out nature of so many of the comments here. It's so encouraging to see how the site has developed. As I mentioned recently, this is exactly what I was hoping for when I started the site just over two years ago.

  6. Skinnyfish, you raise a valid concern, for sure. I'm a big fan of youngsters choosing the NCAA route, if thats the option that suits them best. My intention would not be to harm those kids (or the schools) in any way.

    Thanks for raising this aspect of the discussion.

  7. Mike

    Subsequently I feel teams might end up drafting less from the NCAA due to the increased difficulty of scouting players there. In the CHL, it'll be easy to see which 19 year olds beat up on their competition made up of mostly 16-18 year olds. But in the NCAA, a scout's job would be more difficult judging talent due to limited ice time and by factoring in the disadvantage due to age.

    Though players are drafted out of the SEL with regularity and they play against grown men, but their numbers are far less than in the NCAA.

  8. Skinnyfish, those are clearly important issues. I wonder if the NHL and NHLPA (likely not) would consider a sort of "graduated" system? 18 year-olds can be drafted in the first round. 19 year-olds in the first four rounds, etc.

    I realize this may not address the concerns you highlight, though.

  9. How does dropping the draft age to 19 change anything? I'm not really sure how anyone can suggest it does. Considering no actual data supports the theory, I'm not sure how this could be a largely popular idea. Kids all develop differently. Your not going to change anything, at all, ever. Kids won't develop differently, kids won't get ruined any less or more. Nothing will change. The idea that it will is an arbitrary argument with no actual proof to support it.

  10. Josh

    First off, the draft age is curently 18 and the proposal by Bob Nicholson (head of Hockey Canada) is to raise the draft age to 19.

    Secondly, of course no actual proof exists because they haven't made the switch. But what you're overlooking is that raising the draft age to 19 provides another year of junior/college hockey for the draftees to play and develop in, and give NHL scouts another full year to evaluate those players.

  11. Wanted to clarify that I may or not agree with Michael's thoughts- I think I'll leave the meat of that one up to you guys with more insight- but the writing itself is exceptional. As usual.

  12. Rather than moving the draft age up to 19 or 20, I think a very positive step would be for NHL clubs to pay a fixed amount of compensation to a player's junior club if the NHL club feels that player has outgrown the junior ranks. Something like $1 million for each year of junior eligibility remaining --enough to be a disincentive but not so much that those rare players who truly are ready at 18 would be barred (what team wouldn't have paid $2M to get Crosby 2 years early?) Once paid the player would be released entirely from his junior club, and thus eligible for the NHL or AHL as might be best for his development. Junior hockey would also benefit in 2 ways: less of the 'wait-and-see' extended NHL try-out stuff at the start of the season that I think does no one any good; and, of course, money to invest in the training and development of the remaining players.

  13. Camacian...interesting proposal. Thanks for sharing that. The soccer world seems to be based entirely on paying fees to clubs that developed players, etc. We would certainly find out if clubs were serious about a player and this approach would prevent NHL teams from plucking as many 18 year-olds as they currently do...

  14. Putting that kind of potential $ into the hands of junior team owners could be the worst hockey decision of all time. The potential for corruption and bribery is huge. There are already persistent rumours swirling around successful junior clubs like the London Knights regarding how they are picking up talent at levels no one else seems to be able to. One of the great things about the CHL is it's relatively corruption-free status- imagine if it became rife with backroom deals and payoffs- it might end up like some of the notorious NCAA scandals. If that kind of compensation $ ever got close to getting out of an idea stage, I would hope it went into a strictly equally shared pool for the entire league.

  15. KidK...the complexities of this are probably well beyond me. Camacian's proposal struck me as one that could be considered, but you raise a valid point that I would not have thought of, as I'm no longer terribly close to the junior hockey season.

    My hope is, I guess, that kids could be allowed to develop a bit longer without the pressure of feeling they "have" to get drafted by 18 or they will be forgotten. And, that junior hockey and the NCAA would benefit. But I realize this is complicated, for sure, with no easy solutions...

  16. I generally agree with the lengthening of the development idea, Michael. At 18 years old, they are literally still just kids. And I've always liked how the NFL and NBA drafts are built around having a bachelor's first. Another positive would be reducing the frequency of later-in-life concussion/injury effects by keeping prospects in leagues where safety (visors mandatory, etc) is more at the forefront and more easily implemented. It wouldn't change everything, but it would give the kids and the system a little more time to avoid immediate and long-term damage and buy us time waiting for the NHLPA and the GMs/owners to get their shit together and act to protect players.
    I keep thinking of the prospects who get busted up in their first year adjusting to the power and speed in the NHL, thereby getting a head start on the long term effects of playing a fast and dangerous game at the very highest level.
    It might also help the NHL with it's high-level talent shortage- if we can ensure prospects enter the system better developed, better trained and better prepared, maybe we'll get more of them of longer periods of NHL play. The KHL is not likely to be going away and neither is it's ability to draw away talent.
    The interesting thing is what would happen with the cohort that misses out by being the last 18-year old draft class- my older brother was in the last class to take advantage of Grade 13 here in Ontario. The CHL that year would be a lot of fun.
    "I'm no longer terribly close to the junior hockey season."
    Since moving here to Peterborough and becoming more and more a fan of the Petes and getting to know it's rich history and connections with the NHL, specifically the Habs, Detroit and the Leafs, I've gained a great deal of insight and appreciation into the game on the whole. It's infinitely more valued to me than, say, picking a Champion's League team to root for. Seeing half dozen games a year live connects me to the sport in ways that visiting the ACC can't and won't.

  17. Excellent comments, KidK. Without getting into a whole other discussion (and as a dad of 4 grown sons I have a fair number of thoughts), I often wonder why we rush kids through four years of high school when most are not really fully ready for what college and university will entail.

    Same in hockey. There is plenty of time to be an "adult", but I of course understand this is about business and livelihoods, etc.

    By the way, some of my fondest hockey memories are from when I was doing colour commentary on Junior A games back in the very early 1980s. I loved the pace and the determination of those young players. It was fabulous hockey just about every night.

  18. Long suffering Leaf fanOctober 26, 2011 at 6:29 PM

    Once again excellent topic Mike. The amateur draft was first introduce in 1963 to supposedly help out the weaker clubs in rights protected areas. Yet, somehow Montreal end up with the first selection by taken a highly talented 17 yr old named Gary Monahan out of ST Michale's junior B'S. As you corretly pointed out it was not until 1969 when all junior players of the age 20 yrs old were available for selection..expect for the two French Canadian kids you mention. Punch Imlach said in his book "hockey is a battle" that he tried his best in challenging the Canadiens free pass on Houle and Tardif to no avail. As stated, when the WHA came into existence and started raiding junior clubs of their best young talent, the NHL decided to allow 18 yr old into the draft in 74. This only lasted for one season as the WHA and NHL agree that for the good of the game it was best to let 18 yr old mature and develop in junior. This lasted until a kid from Kingston and his father challenged the NHL age requirement in 1977. The Lawsuit was drop when Kenny Linseman signed a contract with John Jr Bassett and his famous Birmingham "Baby" Bulls. The amateur draft was renamed the entry draft in 1979 with the merger of the WHA and NHL. It was at that time to avoid any lawsuits under the USA employment code. The NHL decided in the first of year of entrance of the merger to allow 19 yr old to be drafted in all 6 rounds. The exception were two kids by the named of Wayne Gretzyk and Mark Messier since they had held WHA contracts from the previous still amazes me how Edmonton was allow to keep Gretzyk out of the draft! I wonder if people would still had thought of Sather as a great hockey mind if he did not have Gretzyk, or hood wink every HNL manager into thinking that Messier was under contract with the Oilers? Michel Goulet agent threatening the NHL with a lawsuit if he was not drafted by the Nordiques...therfore everyone left him alone. The question I had always asked... with labor law and all...why didn't the NHL just agree, if a young athlete was talented enough, he could be drafted as an 18 yr old in the first round and, as a 19 yr old in the first two rounds? By doing so, they could have avoided any lawsuits! Sadly, as much as the entry draft produce some talented kids over the years, it also has damaged some very good young talent like Jim Malone for well as junior hockey to some degree.

  19. Thanks for filling in the blanks, Long Suffering...I thought there was a "back and forth" on the 18 year-old draft and recalled the WHA was obviously a huge part of all that, I just could not remember the years.

    Great point about Messier and Gretzky. Yes, they were "allowed" to stay with the Oilers after the "merger". Without them, the Oilers don't win those Cups and Sather, well, while he and his scouts did some good things, he would not likely be in the Hall-of-Fame (though that could be said for many GM's/coaches, I guess). Without great players, you don't win and become perceived as a "winner".

    For me, the answer may be restricting teams to only drafting 18 year-olds in the first round, and so on...